We woke up on our third day to mist over the Howqua and the air clearer than it had been for days. It hadn’t been as cold during the night as it was up near Craig’s Hut and we’d actually managed to get a reasonable night’s sleep. The back burning smoke had blown over to the other side of the mountains and there was a light blue sky above. We were in for another lovely day.
After another hearty breakfast with hot water poured out of billy cans set over the fire for tea or instant coffee, we packed up our tent, fed and brushed the horses, saddled them and after walking them around to warm up their backs, we set off.
The riding over the last few days had been hard with lots of steep hills, but today we were promised mostly flats – so we thought that we were in for an easy day of it. How wrong we were. We were riding on an old cattle trail looking down at the Howqua. It was narrow and the ground rose on our left too steep to ride up, and fell away on our right down to the river. It wasn’t quite a cliff, but steep enough that if you and your horse went down, you wouldn’t be stopped by anything but the trees and bracken growing out of the rocky side of the mountain. It was beautiful country, but I found I really had to keep my wits about me and really had to work as a team with my horse, Chelsea.
Some of the path had been softened a lot by recent rain, and our trail leader, Shelley, was rather annoyed at how damaged portions of it were. They’d been assured, after having had an accident along that trail where one of their helpers had slipped off the trail with her horse and slid down the hillside a few months before (nobody was hurt, luckily), that the Parks had been through the trail and done work on it to make it safe for riders. There were sections that were decidedly not safe and we stopped a few times so she could take photos of various sections. Unfortunately, we couldn’t turn around, because the path was too narrow, so we just had to keep going forward.
All of us rode carefully and with very little talking as the concentration levels were high. All you could hear was the sound of hooves on the dusty trail, the sound of the Howqua burbling away below us and the sound of birds in the trees, occasionally cut off by the distant sound of an electric saw in the distance as the back burning continued and the call that went down the line as we warned each other of dangerous sections of track.
About half an hour from the stockman’s hut we were heading toward for our first break of the day, we passed a very sandy section of track where the edge had broken away. We all went high on the track to try to avoid breaking away any more of the track, calling back to tell everyone to do the same. Then just as we all thought we were safely through that section, Uncle Richard’s call went from the usual volume to a loud shout as we heard the sound of scrabbling hooves and a desperate cry and then a kind of rumbling, snapping sound.
“Man down. Man down,” Uncle Richard cried out.
We stopped, hearts in our mouths, and heard more snapping, rumbling sounds and then “Oh fuck! Why me?” come from the back of the line.
It was so shocking, it was funny, and we all laughed, relieved that if Karen (who was the ‘man’ who’d gone down the side of the hill with her horse) was able to swear and say something in such a disgruntled, pissed off tone, it meant she was reasonably okay.
Shelley was amazing. She kept absolutely cool, slipped off her horse, got my sister to hold the reins and then scrambled back along the path to the back of the line. Uncle Richard said later when telling the story of what happened, that Karen’s horse – a newer, young acquisition that didn’t have enough trail sense not to try to prance along the dangerous track – had slipped on the soft, broken away bit of trail, it’s back legs going down. He’d heard Karen try to urge the horse forward and up, but the edge was too soft and they both went down. Thankfully, the bracken was so thick, it caught them and didn’t let them slip too far down. By the time Uncle Richard had managed to hop down and get behind his horse, it was to see Karen’s horse come back up over the edge, a little scratched and shaken, but incredibly nothing more. Uncle Richard managed to grab its reins and keep it calm and then Shelley arrived to see what had happened.
In trying to get off the horse, Karen had gone a little further down. Shelley edged her way down to her and together, they managed, using the trees and plants, to pull themselves back over the side. Karen was a little scratched and bruised, swearing a blue streak and laughing that it was her again – she’d been the one who’d gone down on that other ride too, both times because she was the last in the line and the ground had been softened too much by the horses that had gone through before her. She was okay.
She didn’t want to get back on her horse though and not because she was ‘gun shy’. They couldn’t check out the horse properly and didn’t know if there was a more serious injury until we got on more stable ground, so she led her horse over the last section.
My admiration for her rose even higher at this point. The ground was rough and there were steep rises that were tough on the horses, but even tougher on a person on 2 legs. But she just kept going, her concern for her horse apparent.
Then we entered a clearing and all of us breathed a sigh of relief as we saw the stockman’s shack. We hopped off our horses, checked that Karen was truly okay, with her and Uncle Richard enjoying the retelling of the story while Shelley and Karen made sure her horse was okay. We rested for about twenty minutes, had a much needed snack (apples and snakes) and then headed off.
The next section of riding was much easier. We were now right on the Howqua and were riding a curling path that led us over it and back a dozen times. We were able to canter for small sections and got a little wet in others – which given the warm day, was quite welcome. We had lunch at a lovely spot and stopped for an afternoon break at another stockman’s hut – they are scattered throughout the mountains and all cut along similar lines, usually in a lovely clearing near water of some kind. Some of them are privately owned, some are kept up by Parks Victoria and all of them are still used in one way or another. And the isolation of every single one of them made me marvel at how tough and stubborn those early settlers and stockman must have been to ride the mountains and high plains like they did and building these huts in the middle of nowhere.
We had some fun in late afternoon cantering through a section of the river, true Man from Snowy River style and then cantered along the final section of flats to our camp – a quiet section of the river where someone has built a simple house overlooking the river just near Sheep Yard Flats. The man whose house it was came down to greet us as we set up camp, happy for the company. He had a gorgeous sheepdog, called Melbourne, who had speaking eyes and loved the attention he got from all of us.
When the horses were washed down, fed and settled in for the night, my sister and I set up our tent, I had another shower – glorious to get rid of the day’s trail dust – and we settled in for the night around the campfire, telling stories (well, we mostly listened to Uncle Richard tell his stories – he’s got lots and is really entertaining and had us all laughing), shared the story of Karen’s fall with the others who weren’t on the trail with us, laughed over her ‘Oh Fuck! Why me?’ comment and had another wonderful, home cooked meal from Kay.
Uncle Richard managed to talk me into singing for everyone and so I agreed to one song which ended up turning into half a dozen when they kept asking me for another – I was tired and struggling to remember the words of songs I normally know off by heart. Then we all turned in for the night, having had a very exciting, hard day of riding and feeling a little sad that the next day was going to be the last of this wonderful adventure.